The fact is we all stare at screens more than we would like and many of us rely on these tools to communicate with others, even during times when we should be spending quality time with our families and friends. So does all this time staring at screens, which may take time away from looking at faces, change the nature of what we learn about the social world? Our study, at the Children’s Digital Media Center@LA, at UCLA, asked this question. We compared two groups of approximately 50 6th grade children each over a period of five days, one group had no access to screens of any kind, while the other did.
The Supreme Court finally came to a decision about the sale of violent video games to children and despite the hundreds and hundreds of studies linking violence on TV and in video games to aggressive behavior, they decided that “governments don’t have the right to restrict the ideas that children are exposed to.” OK, in theory that makes sense. BUT… we restrict children from depictions of sexual content, we currently prosecute for sexting, we don’t let children buy Playboy or porn videos, what’s the difference? It certainly hasn’t made a difference in our teenage pregnancy rate, the United States has THE HIGHEST teen pregnancy rate in the industrialized world. Compared to France, a country that is high on tolerance of exhibiting sexual images to children, our rate of unplanned teenage pregnancy age 15-19 is 52.1% while their rate is 9.3% (Unicef, 2001)!!
Meanwhile, we are a country that is fiercely protective of gun owners, that tolerates a high level of violence in all of our media and sensationalizes crime in news. European countries keep a tight control on guns and more strictly limit the kind of programming on national television have a much lower per capita crime rate.
Does anyone else think there might be something wrong with this picture?
Almost every day I read some article about how digital media is changing the brain of our children, usually with a negative connotation. Often these articles refer to “studies” that describe what new digital technologies are doing to our children’s brain. No less than the executive editor of the NY Times weighed in, referring to plenty of credible digital Cassandras who have explored what media is doing to our brain. And it is true, the likelihood is high that digital media are changing the brains of everyone who uses them, as the ONLY scientific study, by Gary Small and his colleagues, looking at the brain while participants used media showed. However, given the expense of completing a true study using brain scanners, the sample size was very small, and moreover the participants were all over 50. So we are still in VERY EARLY stages in understanding how this all affects children who use this technology from very early ages.
But one very important thing to realize is that OUR BRAINS ARE CHANGING ALL OF THE TIME. Way back in the first half of the 20th century, a scientist named Hebb developed what is now known as the Hebbian principle — “Cells that fire together, wire together.” This basically means that when synapses fire between different neurons over and over again, they form stronger and more persistent connections. These connections are the ones that last, while those that don’t continue to fire together, tend to be pruned away. More recently, science has shown that the brain constantly learns and creates new connections, a process called plasticity. The brain continues to do this throughout adulthood, so EVERY new experience changes the brain. Interestingly enough, the Gary Small study was demonstrating this concept, that the brain changes even over 50!
If you think about it, technology has been changing our brains for a very long time. Consider the definition of technology: Technology is the making, usage and knowledge of tools, techniques, crafts, systems or methods of organization in order to solve a problem or serve some purpose (Wikipedia, 2011). So if you want to read about one of the very first technologies from millions of years ago, see my other post: Technology the New Pointed Stick?
It is true that digital technology is growing rapidly and perhaps the brain is adapting and changing much more quickly than it did when technology changed more slowly. But the bottom line is the brain changes all the time. It’s not some entirely new idea that technology is rewiring us, it’s been doing that for a very, very long time.